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In the Queen’s Speech, the Conservative Party revealed plans for a more robust series of protections for free speech at British universities. However, this legislation, which aims to prevent no-platforming, is misguided. Though there is evidence that conservative views are underrepresented at British universities, which may have negative free speech consequences, the new plans do nothing to tackle this problem and the focus on the non-issue of no-platforming amounts to meaningless political posturing. 

The Government contends that free speech is a serious problem on university campuses across the country. The new legislation focuses on so-called no-platforming, where a speaker is not given access to a public debate or forum, generally due to the controversial nature of their views. Indeed, Amber Rudd was recently no-platformed from an Oxford University debate for her hand in the Windrush scandal, which saw the deportation of legally resident citizens. The Government’s assertion is that the practice of no-platforming is a frequent occurrence, stymieing debate and frustrating intellectual rigour as a result. 

However, despite the supposed importance of no-platforming as a free speech issue, there is little evidence to support the existence of widespread no-platforming. This must bring into question the necessity of this legislation. In fact, there is a substantial body of research which shows a significant issue in the balance of political views. A 2020 report found that just six university events in almost 10,000 (0.06%) involving an external speaker were cancelled in 2019-20. Of these six, four were cancelled due to not following administrative processes, one involved a pyramid scheme fraudster, and the other was moved to a larger venue. In addition to this, the Office for Students, which regulates higher education in England, collects data on external speakers — its official figures show that fewer than 0.1% of requests for events or external speakers were blocked in 2017-18 (data is not yet available beyond this).

As such, no-platforming appears to be rare and hardly worthy of a mention in the Queen’s Speech. Indeed, this policy directed at no-platforming is not based on a clear need, but perhaps some political posturing about a matter of greater principle. Arguably, it conflates the issues of free speech with fair representation of views. 

Certainly, it is often touted by the right that universities are too left-wing, with substantial evidence supporting those on the political left’s over-representation when compared to the rest of the population. Only 8% of the national university population identifies as conservative compared to the national average of around 40%. Indeed research from the Policy Exchange finds that academics with more conservative viewpoints feel constrained in expressing their views, with examples cited including trans rights and Brexit. This is a significant finding, which must have implications for the direction of academic research and the nature of scholarly debate.

While the under-representation of conservative views at universities may not directly obstruct debate, as in the fallacy of de-platforming of speakers, it may impede the trajectory of academic research and these issues within universities require a more complex policy response. The same report from Policy Exchange gave a series of detailed policy recommendations to overcome the issue of poor representation of conservative ideologies among academics. Two of the most pertinent ones discussed recommending expanding the National Student Survey to include questions designed to elicit students’ experience of political discrimination and of a climate of free expression in the classroom, and the adoption of a version of the ‘Chatham House Rule’ as an institutional code of practice for teaching and research seminars. These proposals are tangible suggestions that would go a long way to tackling this genuine free speech issue within our universities. 

It has been demonstrated that there is limited evidence to support the need for the free speech legislation the Government plans to introduce. Instead, it appears that free speech is being protected through crude means which will not help with the identified problem of academic representation of views. Perhaps in an attempt to appeal to older voters and contribute to the debate on free speech legislation, legislators have disappointingly grasped at the low hanging fruit of no-platforming as opposed to considering serious and needed policy interventions. Recommendations exist to increase the diversity of political views held by academics that are simple to introduce, require little public funding, and would find support across a wide variety of voters and the Government must consider them in order to deal with the free speech issue in universities properly. 

Freddie is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Sarah Cossom]